How remarkable that Kyiv’s heroic president was once their Mr Bean: As Volodymyr Zelensky’s political satire airs on Channel 4, JAN MOIR gives her view from the sofa
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Now we understand so, so much more about Volodymyr Zelensky, the charismatic war hero president of Ukraine.
Not least of all that he was a famous entertainer in his homeland before he came to power; an actor and comedian who voiced Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version of the film; a twinkle-toed maverick who won his country’s version of Strictly Come Dancing in 2006.
Even more remarkable is that this ordinary man who became president of Ukraine made a hugely popular television series about an ordinary man who became president of Ukraine, which was instrumental in him actually becoming president of Ukraine.
Servant Of The People ran for four years, with the final episode broadcast in Ukraine at the end of March 2019 – and Zelensky became president less than a month later, standing on an independent ticket.
Even more remarkable is that this ordinary man who became president of Ukraine made a hugely popular television series about an ordinary man who became president of Ukraine, which was instrumental in him actually becoming president of Ukraine
Last night Channel 4 broadcast the hour-long pilot which launched the series, plus two 30-minute episodes. Given what we know now, it is a grimly fascinating watch, one which gives rise to a complicated churn of emotions.
In Servant, we see Zelensky as a skilled comic actor blessed with deft timing and a keen sense of the absurd in a sunlit world where he burns his hand on a coffee pot and bumbles around like Mr Bean.
In real life, we see him making life or death proclamations in the films he makes and posts online from war-torn Kyiv. One of the latest was about ‘brutal, cynical missile strikes’ that are destroying the infrastructure of Ukraine. In another he talked of the ‘darkness and evil’ that has engulfed his country.
It is hard not to be moved to tears by the terrible contrast. Particularly as the series was made by Kvartal 95 – Zelensky’s own production company – and his wife Olena was one of the scriptwriters.
Now they are respectively number one and number two on the Kremlin kill list.
In Servant, we see Zelensky as a skilled comic actor blessed with deft timing and a keen sense of the absurd in a sunlit world where he burns his hand on a coffee pot and bumbles around like Mr Bean
How different the world must have seemed when they first made the programmes. In what is essentially a cheerful political satire, Zelensky stars as a teacher from Kyiv called Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko.
One day his students film him making an anti-corruption rant against the Ukrainian government. ‘Our presidents come to power and make the same mistakes,’ he shouts.
‘They come to power and steal and steal and steal – and nobody gives a s***. If I could get in there, I’d show them!’
The students put the clip on Twitter and eight million views later, along with a crowdfunding programme, Goloborodko is indeed the leader of Ukraine.
The unspoken conceit is that the populace is so heartsick of systemic corruption that it would elect anyone who promised a fairer world – and that is more or less what happened.
That satire which then ensues is not subtle, but is there any need for it to be? It is no secret that Ukraine was one of the most corrupt countries in the world. One of the first things the real life President Zelensky did was to lift the legal immunity enjoyed for many years by members of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.
In the early scenes of the comedy, Goloborodko is too befuddled by the demands of his new status for the grand political gesture. Would he like a limited edition Hublot watch on his wrist? Putin has one just like this, he is told. Goloborodko is not impressed.
He meets his staff, a dizzying amount of experts amassed to cater to his every whim. There are department chiefs, a therapist who needs a therapist of her own, beauty teams and even an ostrichologist to attend to the needs of any future pet ostriches, one presumes?
The unspoken conceit is that the populace is so heartsick of systemic corruption that it would elect anyone who promised a fairer world – and that is more or less what happened. That satire which then ensues is not subtle, but is there any need for it to be?
There are so many jokes and references that are clearly lost in translation but there is no mistaking Zelensky’s natural star quality.
By episode two, President Goloborodko is suggesting that maybe instead of the prepared words he would write his own inauguration speech? Officials dissuade him. ‘You ought to have a clear head, an unpolluted brain, spotless thoughts,’ he is smoothly told.
Outside the government buildings, life has changed for his family, too. When his mother and sister go shopping for clothes for the inauguration ceremony, guess what?
Shopkeepers tell them there is a sale that means 100 per cent off. His mother buys a spotty top that ‘would make Whoopi Goldberg jealous’. His father gets two free inflatable boats. Here come the good times!
On his first night as president, installed in a McMansion in a green area of Kyiv, everything is at Goloborodko’s disposal, even sex. He is given a remote control. ‘Press one for Angela, two for Violetta, three for Edward,’ he is informed.
Instead, he is visited by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, who urges him to release his people from slavery. Ukrainians are not slaves, cries the innocent new president.
‘Look at those millions of Ukrainians who sweat their backs off to feed this arrogant so called elite. That is not slavery?’ thunders Lincoln, behind his comedy beard.
As I said, subtle it is not. But in the light of the current situation, Servant Of The People seems nothing short of heroic.
‘I am just an ordinary history teacher. A history teacher going down in history. Funny, isn’t it?’ muses Goloborodko at one point.
Like Zelensky he understands the significance of the past all too well – but what about the future?
The series was filmed in Kyiv, which looks beautiful in the summer sunshine. Back then, normal lives were being lived in the pretty squares and parks along the Dnieper River where the action takes place.
Today, I felt overwhelmed by dread watching this innocent small-screen caper. How many of those bridges across the river are still standing? How many people in those crowd scenes are still safe?
The new President Goloborodko asks the people to trust him. ‘I’ll figure it out,’ he says. Fingers crossed that brave President Zelensky will, too.
Is that you creeping up to Putin, Villanelle?
Fans of Killing Eve think they’ve spotted Villanelle’s next target: Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president met female flight attendants at Aeroflot airline on Saturday, with one bearing an uncanny resemblance to the BBC show’s evil assassin Oksana Astankova, known as Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer.
One fan wrote on Twitter: ‘What is Villanelle doing round the table with Putin! I do hope she is planning to bump him off.’
The Russian president met female flight attendants at Aeroflot airline on Saturday, with one (left) bearing an uncanny resemblance to the BBC show’s evil assassin Oksana Astankova
Oksana Astankova, known as Villanelle, is played by Jodie Comer (pictured above in the role)
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